Writer, Teacher, Researcher
I’m tired this week. I have spent a great deal of time reading and writing about the results of the election and what this means for our nation and our children. I wrote a commentary about how I planned to talk with my children about our president-elect. I have read numerous Facebook posts, Tweets, and blogs about what it means if you voted for Donald Trump or voted for Hillary Clinton or what a Trump presidency means to America. I have listened to people defend their choices. I have watched as protesters take to the streets. I have watched female students cry. And, I have thought long and hard as to what this means as a teacher, writer, and activist.
I’ve been following a thread on the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Teaching and Learning Forum which was sparked by Dr. Paul Thomas’ blog post “Dark Mourning in America: “the world is at least/fifty percent terrible.” The post has ignited a debate about whether or not a national organization should be political. But, what’s most interesting to me is how we use and define politics and being political.
Teaching is a political act. Just teaching people to read and write and be literate is political. As English teachers, we are invested in making sure that all children can read and write. We want a literate populace that thinks critically. Public education is grounded in this belief, as educators such as John Dewey pushed for almost a century ago. Educators like Paulo Freire called for learners to be subjects in their education, actively participating and not just being passive objects being filled like a vessel. Freire, like other educators, argued that education is never neutral. As teachers, we are either recreating what is in the world—a conformity—or critically evaluating the world around us and teaching children how to do just that.
If we choose to believe that we are just teaching children to love to read, but we are not teaching them the impact of what it means to read or what they choose to read, we are supporting compliance. If we push students to actively engage in their reading, to make choices about the reading they do, to use their writing to make a stand or propose a solution we are teaching independence. But, whichever you choose to do, realize that both are political.
We cannot separate what is being taught—or not being taught—from the Politics of our nation. English and the humanities are where we turn to better understand what is happening around us. If I choose not to encourage my students to write and reflect on their experiences of the past week, I am compliant in the racist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric that is taking place right now in our country and which took place in our election. If I don’t encourage my students to read deeply and widely, to read authors who are not white males, read authors and stories that have different life experiences than they do, read nonfiction, read about being an informed citizen, read about their world, I am telling my students that I believe it is okay to act in these ways in and outside of the classroom.
I teach college students, but I also spend time in my children’s schools and have been doing research with first year rural English Language Arts teachers. We are constantly political. Pushing my preservice teachers to think about the kinds of writing they will ask their future students to do is political. Encouraging them to move away from the traditional research paper or not teach the five paragraph essay and instead teach “real world” writing is a political act. Donating books to the area schools libraries creating a literacy memorial for those who were murdered in Orlando is political. Any time a student is stopped from bullying another student, making racist or homophobic comments, or telling a student to “go back to where they belong” it is political.
If we see hate and do not stop it, we are part of that hate. One of the reasons I have dedicated my life to teaching English is because of my belief in the power of language to change the world. I want language to change the world in ways that encourage people to think freely, to be able to critic the world around them and to not be passive consumers. I want to teach my students to be active citizens in the United States, and this means that in all I do, I must be an active citizen as well. I hope that we can continue these conversations and realize that small “p” politics MUST be part of teaching in order to create active and informed citizens.